Alabama has become the last state in the country to regulate coal ash under new rules that may lead coal-burning utilities to change how they store the toxic material. Currently in the state, most of the ash byproduct of burning coal is either sold for recycling into other materials or stored in ponds near the plant that produced it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been contemplating whether to treat coal ash as a hazardous material and impose tight restrictions on how it’s handled. But the Alabama Legislature acted first and passed a bill with its own new, less-stringent rules.
Environmental groups endorse Alabama taking authority over the ash as a solid waste, saying it is better than no regulations at all. Also, the state’s solid waste designation would be superseded if the federal government decides to treat it as hazardous. The bill removing the exemption for coal ash from the state’s solid waste law was approved unanimously by the Legislature and was signed into law by Governor Bentley.
The new law gives the Alabama Department of Environmental Management the power to require that dry coal ash be stored in permitted landfills with liners and groundwater monitoring in place. The law won’t change how ADEM treats coal ash stored in wet ponds, which is to only monitor the water that is discharged off the top of the pond after the ash settles, and not the nearby groundwater.
It appears that if power companies in Alabama, or from other states, were to clean out their ash ponds and send the dry ash to an Alabama landfill, ADEM would now have authority over that process. The Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, announced plans to convert its wet storage ponds to dry after one of its facilities in Tennessee ruptured, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of the toxic sludge across 300 acres. Coal ash contains several dangerous materials, including mercury and arsenic, which can cause cancer and other serious health effects if they contaminate drinking-water wells.
The EPA has two proposals pending, one to treat it as hazardous and the other as non-hazardous. The agency received more than 450,000 comments from the public, and a final rule is not expected before the end of the year. Both ADEM and Alabama Power Co. oppose the hazardous waste option. Conservation Alabama supported the ADEM bill on solid waste. Adam Snyder, executive director of Conservation Alabama, says that before the new law was passed, coal ash could be spread on a field legally. At least now it has to be in a landfill that is regulated and monitored. The legislation also allows coal ash to continue to be recycled into things like concrete.
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